Most musicians are aware of the idea of ‘swing’ as off-beats lying somewhere between the triplet grid and the quaver grid. Somewhere ‘in the cracks’ between
Close to but not exactly
The way this is usually learnt is by ear, listening & playing along to a lot of music and just absorbing the ‘feel’ of where those swung off-beats land between the downbeats. Like learning many other music/language skills, this ‘osmosis’ method is often enough. However, equally as often it’s not… as with a lot of things, if you’re not conscious of what you’re doing then while there’s a good chance you might happen to be doing the perfect thing for the music at the time just by ‘feeling it’, there’s also the chance that a blindspot is making you fight the music, or undermine it in some way. A good friend of mine told me about the time they auditioned a drummer who played an entire song in a swung feel that really should have been straight, turning an aggressive & raw track with attitude, into a jaunty pantomime knees-up…
So let’s shine a bit of light on this area for a few reasons:
- To be able to make better musical decisions, either as a group, section, or individual player
- To be able to practise it systematically and have it as a usable, adaptable skill in our toolbox
- To abstract the concept and see what other ideas come out of it. Let’s get weird!
First off let’s look at what ‘swing’ is exactly. If we state the distance of the weak beat as it lies between the downbeats as a percentage, straight 8ths would be 50%, triplets would be around 67%. The reality is that we can put the ‘swung’ weak beat at any point between the strong beats, and that will give a certain rhythmic feel (as long as it’s consistent!). Below is a visual representation of this, in terms of a time-line on the left, and in a circle on the right – like a clock that counts one beat – the downbeat is at the top and the off-beat at the other point.
Note- For the following examples, I’ve generally looked specifically at the timing of the drums only, by loading the clips into a DAW to look at the average ‘swing’ points between downbeats.
Here’s a well-known jazz recording with a fairly typical ‘swing’ value of 70% 8th-note swing. That is to say, the off-beat 8th notes land at 70% of the time interval from one downbeat to the next (shown in red below) – a little later than the third of a set of triplets (67% – shown with a grey line), and a little earlier than where the 4th of a 16th note grid (1-e-and-A) would land (75% – grey line).
Here’s another example, this time the swing is in the 16th-note grid, that is to say the off-beat 16th notes (‘E’ & ‘A’) are swung in the region of 58-60%, while the downbeats and ‘AND’s are not.
Or a more modern take using ‘quintuplet’ 8th-note swing (60%)
Music’s totally subjective, and of course many other factors are affecting the feels of these tracks, but to me I’d say the first example (70% 8th note swing) has a classic, laid-back, ‘circular’ feel to it, the second (58-60% 16th note swing) a more ‘square’ but still laid-back feel with some bounce & forward momentum, and the third (60% 8th note swing) a more jilted, quirky feel. How much would the character of each song be changed if everything else stayed the same, but their swing values were different?
As an added bonus in case you were in any doubt as to how the appropriate level of swing can make or break a style, here’s three examples guaranteed to give any classic rocker an instant aneurysm:
2. USING THE GRID
Often if we’re talking about ‘swinging’ a rhythm, it’s taken to mean that we’re superimposing a more interesting time feel on to notation that would otherwise be quite static. E.g straight quavers becoming more like the first and third triplets. If you’re putting the notes down on a grid, the slots are now unequally spaced.
So once you’ve familiarised yourself with playing in some different swing feels [LINK TO PRACTISE PAGE], you can start superimposing these feels on to existing grooves.
3. REVERSE SWING
If we take this idea of a shifted off-beat and choose to put the weak beat before the mid-point of the downbeats, we end up with what I call ‘reverse swing’. This can result in a feel that could be described as more rushed, urgent, galloping, awkward.. play around with it and let me know how you hear it!
Here’s a ‘reverse swing’ version of a relatively well known tune to get you in the mood:
Below are some examples of some reverse swing grooves on drums, mapping what would be a fairly standard groove onto odd subdivisions
For example, adapting this groove gives us these:
reverse 16th notes – ‘scotch snaps’
simple reverse triplet swing
simple reverse quintuplet swing
To practise with, here’s some examples of feels on a grid of subdivisions (though just like regular swing, it’s the cracks between the subdivisions that will give the best feels)
16th note reverse swing
triplet reverse swing
quintuplet reverse swing
septuplet reverse swing
septuplet reverse swing B
* if you were to put the swung beat on a different subdivision, you’d get a different, ‘tighter’ swing feel. E.g. the 3rd septuplet instead of 4th gives a swing position of 29% – right in between 16ths and triplets.
Here’s a track from Mauritius’ Kaya. Based in triplet time (with a slightly late second triplet) the rhythm section more often emphasise the downbeat and the ‘trip’, giving a ‘reverse swing’ feel. This is quite a common trend with sega/seggae music, so if you like it go and dig some more!
REVERSE SWING WITH SYNCOPATION
We can also try adapting a groove with more syncopation:
reverse quintuplet swing
varying quintuplet swing
reverse septuplet swing (B)
using reverse triplet swing for the 16th note grid (8th note grid is straight)
By the way, you could also call this ‘trochaic’ swing, in that it’s based on trochees (¯ ˘) rather than iambs (˘ ¯).* That is to say, a meter based on a stressed sound followed by an unstressed one, rather than the other way round (unstressed leading into a stressed). Iambic swing has definitely been the predominantly used style of swing in western music since its popularisation by jazz and blues in the 20th century, and there’s some fascinating discussion to be had here in terms of how language shapes our musical choices, but that’s for another time. If you’re interested, you could start by checking out this video, and also this one.
* If you’re more interested in how this applies to music check out The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper & Leonard B. Meyer, in which they analyse rhythmic meter in terms of poetic feet.
4. COMPOUND SWING
Here’s where things can get pretty funky. What happens if you swing the 8th notes by one amount, and the 16th notes by another? As it turns out, quite a range of – for lack of a better word – stanky effects.
If the 16th notes and the 8th notes are both swung a little, this has the effect of pushing everything late except the downbeat. Here’s a couple of great examples:
From New Orleans, Galactic’s ‘Tchfunkta’ (drums: Stanton Moore)
and London’s Yussef Kamaal (drums: Yussef Dayes)
Here’s an example using a triplet grid:
This track from Kenya’s I. Jingo features a triplet grid where the second triplet is ~40% (instead of the usual 33%), and the third is 66% (about where it would be in a straight group of triplets). Note that that second triplet at 40% is where the third of a set of quintuplets would fall!
In this batucada style samba by Portinho, the shaker pattern is using a varied 16th note swing grid, where the ‘e’ (second 16th note) is around 28%, and the ‘a’ (last 16th note) is around 70%. The 8th note grid is pretty much even. As with most previous examples, other instruments will have their own grids/feels, some closer to triplets, some closer to straight 16ths.. this is part of the magic of this, and many other genres!
Another thing we can do is use multiple varied swings all at the same time, as in this great example by D’Angelo (drums: Questlove)
Here we get more into the ‘Dilla beat’ end of things – mixed swings of straight 32nd (first off-beat hi-hat), straight 6-let (kick), some softly swung 8ths (56%), even a reverse 33% too (this is a hi-hat which you could also see as a series of 1/4 note triplets across beats 3&4). Oh and also the snare backbeats are slightly early too, because why not.
As mentioned briefly, that last example uses another very commonly used ‘feel’ effect, which is for either the snare or kick to be slightly earlier or later than the rest of the grid. Not far enough to be on a different subdivision, but just ‘behind the beat’ or ‘ahead of the beat’. This affects the feel by either ‘pulling back’ / ‘dragging’ the tempo, or ‘driving’ / ‘rushing’ it along, respectively.
5. IN CONCLUSION
Essentially, microtiming and degrees of swing are to rhythm what intonation is to pitch. It’s such a fine line, a subtle thing; sometimes it’s make-or-break, sometimes not so much. If you have a group of instruments playing in tight harmony, good intonation is essential. If a singer is singing on their own or as a separate lead part, it’s still important but they have more freedom to play with it, bend notes, add expression.
In harmony, intonation is vital because what we’re experiencing are consonant (or dissonant) harmonics being stacked up on top of each other, our brains recognising and processing these patterns in a fraction of a second. In rhythm, it’s all the same thing but at much slower speeds – so we have more time to play with. More of a chance to hear and experience imperfections, and create different effects with that. What would be considered ‘perfect intonation’ in the rhythm world would be all the instruments lined up exactly with each other on a grid (quantised). Sometimes this is absolutely what the music needs to deliver the intended effect – it would be a mess without it. Other times it will totally ‘dry out’ music where the whole appeal is of the subtle, human imperfections.
As with everything in music, there’s no right or wrong – just different effects, choices, tastes, and tools to communicate. All the different ideas in this post convey subtly different feelings when used, and so with practise I hope this adds something to your toolbox! If you found any of this interesting at all or have made any music with the ideas, leave a comment below – I’d love to hear it.
In terms of ‘compound’ swing and more advanced/in-depth microtiming, I have to give a quick shoutout to Malcolm Braff who has explored this area in some detail, definitely check him out if you’re interested in this.
MORE LISTENING/PRACTISE EXAMPLES
‘New Heights’ – off-beat 16th notes (‘e’ and ‘a’) fluctuate between 45-55% (Note- going below 50% introduces some ‘reverse’ swing)
Cissy Strut – generally dances around 54-56% (drums) – guitar is more swung and also ‘behind’ (later than) the drums
Ready or Not – hip-hop swing – 60%
The New Reel – off-beat 16th notes swung at 53%, changes into 6-let swing (83%)